There have actually been a couple of interesting posts on this subject that I have seen on Facebook this week. The first was an article entitled “Christian Democrat?” on In All Things. The website is a Dordt College project and as such the article has a very reformed leaning. But, it is a very good article and on point. Since I’m not reformed the discussion about John Calvin and Abraham Kuyper was less influential for me personally though I do have an affinity for certain aspects of their thinking. But, I was taken back to their quotes when I ran across a link this morning from John Piper asking “How Should Christians Think About Socialism?” Piper is a controversial but also widely popular and influential voice in evangelicalism. But, he is also a very public Calvinist. He tried to be very measured in his response to the question the podcast/ article addresses but showed a propensity to conflate the type of “Socialism” being advocated by people like Bernie Sanders with more hard-line historical communism and socialism and as such set up a bit of a strawman anti-socialist argument.
The reality is that the type of “Socialism” being advocated for by portions of the Democratic party is not the Communism of the 20th century. Today’s Democratic Socialism is built on a strong Capitalist base. The goal is not government-owned or controlled means of production but a cooperative use of some resources for the public good. There is no abolition of private property and the coercion factor that Piper references is no greater than already exists in our current system. (As a side note, I think Piper is on shaky Biblical grounds with his coercion argument but that would be too much to cover here though I think I will cover it later in this series).
But, I should not let myself get sidetracked by terms like Socialism. I am not a Socialist. But, I am not a pure Capitalist either. I believe in well-regulated Capitalism with some government facilitated/ controlled cooperation when it benefits the public good.
In the In All Things article by Dave Schelhaas that I referenced above, he tells the story of his grand-daughter at a Christian School being told that Christians vote Republican. That is the assumption all too often. Further, many feel that when Christians vote Democratic they do so out of rebellion to God rather than because of their sincere Christian convictions. With that in mind, I want to share some of the quotes that Schelhaas shared to demonstrate that there have been well-respected Christians going back centuries that have held ideas that sound very Democratic today. Then, I will share a couple of verses that come to mind often when having these discussions. There are also specific issues that I plan to address in future articles such as Justice, Economics, Race, Love, Coercion, Idolatry, Pro-life (the practical side), and Pro-life (the theological side). If there are issues that you are interested in me addressing specifically please let me know.
Calvin and Kuyper
Schelhaas quotes H.H. Meter about Calvin saying, “Calvin advocated public loans for the poor and refugee, measures relating to public health… the fixing of the price of corn and wine and other commodities, the determination of the proper rate of interest, even the ownership by the State of a silk industry… In fact, so much social legislation was enacted by the Genevan government at the time and through the influence of Calvin that his government has been termed Christian socialism.” These policies sound very much like the types of policies which today would be advocated for by Democrats. Calvin was far from the current Republican position on these issues. Not that his opinion on these political issue is too important. He was a human and could be wrong. Since I’m not a Calvinist, I certainly think he was wrong on some theological issues. But, it is important to realize that the conflation of Christianity and Republican ideals is not historical. It really only goes back a few decades. Many Christian voices throughout history have advocated positions that sound very dissimilar to the Republican platform. In Calvin’s commentary on II Corinthians 8:15 he wrote, “God wills there be equality and proportion among us, that is, each person is to provide for the needy according to his means so that no one has too much and no one too little.” Calvin’s articulation here in his own words seems very much like a Democratic position. He goes so far as to claim that the redistribution of wealth is the will of God.
Abraham Kuyper is one of the most important thinkers to many Calvinists. He was a theologian and a statesmen. But, his thoughts about capitalism were very different from the average American today who sees capitalism as inherently good. Schelhaas writes that Kuyper “denounces laissez-faire capitalism as ‘inimical to human well-being, material or physical, out of tune with Scripture and contrary to the will of God,’ believing that laissez-faire capitalism not only brought about injustice to the poor but was fundamentally unchristian in its promotion of greed.” Pure capitalism is “out if tune with Scripture and contrary to the will of God.” That doesn’t sound anything like a Republican candidate who relies on the invisible hand of the market to bring justice and prosperity. Again, Kuyper did not write scripture and his opinion could well be wrong, though I think in this case he is correct. The point is that what we today often take as a given within evangelical culture has not always been a given for Christians.
Ronald Reagan is the great hero of the contemporary Republican Party. The second Republican debate was held at the Reagan Library and people often joke that Republican candidates are in a rush to see who can most align themselves with St. Reagan. The irony is that Reagan was far too moderate to get elected in today’s Republican party. Whether the issue is amnesty for undocumented aliens, gun control, nuclear de-escalation, raising taxes, or a willingness to compromise Reagan does not meet the current Republican litmus test. Even Obamacare was originally the market driven healthcare alternative to Clintoncare proposed by The Heritage Foundation and other Reagan supporters. The Republican party has moved to the right of where it was in the 1980’s.
From my perspective, the legacy of Reagan has less to do with his policies than his attitude toward government. In his first inaugural address, Reagan famously said, when referencing the nation’s economic challenges, “In this present crisis, government is not the solution to our problem: government is the problem.” Throughout his Presidency and even more in the ensuing years this mantra expanded beyond economics to most areas of life and government, excepting the military. This divide has become one of the major philosophical dividing lines between Democrats and Republicans. For Democrats, the government has the capacity to do what private organizations are not able to do. No doubt the government will make mistakes. It will screw things up. Yet, the government is ultimately responsible to the American people not just corporate shareholders. In a participatory government (admittedly we need much higher participation rates in the U.S.), the people should be best served by an organization with a broader range of stake holders.
More importantly for me, though, is the question about whether a Christian should view the government as the enemy. The relationship between the individual and the government is far from the primary narrative in scripture. But, scripture can still be helpful in answering this question. Since the Old Testament Jewish government was formed by the command of God I believe there are clues there as to how government should function. Further, the general attitude toward government in scripture is positive. But, I think there are some clearer clues in the New Testament. Paul writes:
Let every person be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God. Therefore whoever resists the authorities resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment… Therefore one must be in subjection, not only to avoid God’s wrath but also for the sake of conscience. For because of this you also pay taxes, for the authorities are ministers of God, attending to this very thing. Pay to all what is owed to them: taxes to whom taxes are owed, revenue to whom revenue is owed, respect to whom respect is owed, honor to whom honor is owed. Romans (13:1-2 & 5-7)
When a passage like this is quoted there is always the tendency to say, “What about Hitler and Nazi Germany?” I think that is a fair question. I believe the above is a general principle which does not forbid us from standing against despots. But, I think it also clearly states that we are to honor Government generally and view it as a tool of God. This to me seems the antithesis of a great deal of rhetoric that is coming from the Republican Party, particularly the further right Tea Party within the Republican wing of our political system.
I do not see a biblical justification for viewing the government as the enemy- even when the government is wrong. Most Christians know the story about when the scribes and priests asked Jesus about paying taxes. What we often don’t realize is the context of the question. The question was actually less about taxes and more about whether or not jews should recognize an occupying government. Rome was a foreign pagan government that oppressed Israel and taxed them heavily and unfairly. The Jewish people were constantly rebelling. The subtext of the scribes question was “Should we honor this illegitimate government?” And, Jesus’ answer was yes. It seems even more obvious that in a government by the people, for the people that we should not view the government as the enemy. As Paul said, “there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God. Therefore whoever resists the authorities resists what God has appointed”.
So, what is government all about then? I believe most people would agree that the role of government is to promote the common good. The problem comes when we try to define what that is. The answer is probably a little different depending on the cultural context. The safety of the citizens is, I think pretty clear. So, police and military are a given. Though there will obviously be very different opinions about how that specifically works out.
When thinking on this subject I often think about Micah 6:8 “what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?” We live in a nation that has separation of church and state so the portion about “with your God” needs to be handled on a personal level. But, as a nation I do think we can seek to do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly. Even if our nation is not a Christian nation those are the qualities, as Christians, that we should seek for our government to have if it is to represent us.
I think also of Sodom. Ezekiel tells us about why she was judged, “this was the guilt of your sister Sodom: she and her daughters had pride, excess of food, and prosperous ease, but did not aid the poor and needy. They were haughty and did an abomination before me. So I removed them, when I saw it.” (Ezekiel 16:49-50) One of Sodom’s main transgressions was that despite the city’s wealth they did not care for the poor and needy. I am always struck when I read the biblical law that governed the state of Israel that so much of it is about social justice, caring for the poor, needy and oppressed.
Finally, I think about what Jesus said of those who did not care for the poor:
‘Depart from me, you cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. For I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me no drink, I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not clothe me, sick and in prison and you did not visit me…. Truly, I say to you, as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me. ’ (Matthew 25:41-43 & 45)
Certainly, this is an admonition for us personally. But, how can our politics not also reflect this ethic?
So, what is the goal of government? To promote human flourishing, the common good. This means providing protection from criminals and foreign nations, enabling a secure economy, and caring for the poor, the needy, the oppressed, as Christ said, the least of these.
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